Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Plot Driven or Character Driven?
In discussing plot and character, we often make a distinction between books that are plot driven and books that are character driven.
Most mysteries, suspense novels, and thrillers are essentially plot driven. In a plot-driven story, incidents happen, and the characters are forced to react to them. The hero is accused of murder. The heroine’s baby is kidnapped. The heroine wakes up to find the villain has set her house on fire.
In a character-driven book, the story is shaped by the character traits and the inner feelings of the hero and heroine. Most literary fiction and some romances are character driven.
However, to some extent these two elements are always intertwined. Because you can’t work on a plot without having the right characters who fit into it and without considering how the incidents affect these people.
The way I think about it is—the most important thing about each element of the plot is—how will the characters I’ve created react to this situation?
What will be their feelings, their emotions? Seeing the hero dangling off a cliff adds drama and tension to a story. But the tension is increased when we experience the scene through the eyes of the heroine—who is desperate to save him.
Or turn the tables. How does he feel if he comes back to their hideout and finds she’s been kidnapped? What if he comes home and finds she’s packed her things and left?
I’m going to take what seems like an extreme example of a plot-driven scene and look at how adding character-driven elements enhances it.
Jacob comes in and sees she’s found the evidence. Although he protests that he’s being set up, she’s holds him at gunpoint while she calls the cops. He changes into a werewolf and shows her why he doesn’t need implements to tear anyone to shreds.
The transformation takes place while the police are on the way to Jacob’s house to arrest him. The action is tense and dramatic, but it’s only part of the scene. The emotions of the characters are equally important. Renata’s horror that the man she made love with is a serial killer. Jacob’s anger and frustration that she thinks he’s guilty. His desperation to prove it can’t be him. Her terror at discovering his true nature.
This scene is obviously from a paranormal romantic suspense novel. The external plot is the suspense plot, which has to move at a good pace to keep the reader turning the pages. But, as in any romance, the internal plot is always equally–or more–important.
Once I get my basic idea, I focus on the characters and the conflict between them as I design the incidents of the story.
In any scene you write, you don’t have to get it down all at once. I often start by focusing on blocking out the action. In the scene I described above, the action is her breaking into his house and discovering the evidence hidden in his closet, his coming home and finding her, her holding him at gunpoint while she calls the authorities, and his changing to wolf form. I may initially get some of the characters’ emotions, but I always have to go back and add more to tie the action to what the characters are feeling.
The scene I described above started from Renata’s point of view as she sneaks through his house, first feeling guilty because she’s spying on Jacob. Then her emotions turn to horror as she thinks he’s the killer. When Jacob comes home, it switches to his viewpoint so I can get his feeling of shock–then desperation–as he tries to convince her of his innocence.
I don’t hop back and forth from one viewpoint to another in a scene. I stick with one character and perhaps switch POV once, if I think it’s necessary. And I do try to use the POV of the character who has the most to lose.
But you can show a character’s emotions by using cues that the viewpoint character observes. It can be body language (her shoulders tensed), facial expressions (her mouth softened), tone of voice (her voice went high and reedy), manner of speaking (she clipped out her words), or actions (she slammed the book onto the table). Take it as a challenge to show the reader a character’s feelings without being in his or her head.
One more point I should make—the emotions of the characters are always crucial in a love scene. Otherwise it’s just a description of putting tab A into slot B. Women writers are better at this than most men writers. (Ken Follett is a notable exception.) One of my favorite examples of an inadequate love scene written by a man consists of these two sentences: “He climbed into bed. He reached for her breast.”
If you’re oriented toward plot, don’t leave out the emotions of the characters as you tell your story. And if the characters are what interest you most, make sure enough is happening in the story to keep the reader turning the pages.
Do you think of yourself as a plot-driven or a character-driven writer, and why?